I finished W.G. Sebald’s book Austerliz this weekend, having read it slowly over the last month. There is something about Sebald’s writing that forces me to stop, and consider, carefully, what he writes on each page. The writing isn’t complex; quite the opposite – it’s beautifully, wonderfully clear. But it is rich, and subtle; conjuring images meant to be examined carefully as one examines each turn of a kaleidoscope.
This isn’t a book review as I have no interest in ‘reviewing it’. I’ll just share a tiny bit of it.
But I always found what Alphonso told us about the life and death of moths especially memorable, and of all creatures I feel the greatest awe of them. In the warmer months of the year one or other of these nocturnal insects quite often strays indoors from the small garden behind my house. When I get up early in the morning, I find them clinging to the wall, motionless. I believe, said Austerlitz, they know they have lost their way, since if you do not put them out again carefully they will stay where they are, never moving, until the last breath is out of their bodies, and indeed they will remain in that place where they come to grief even after death, held fast by the tiny claws that stiffened in their last agony, until a draft of air detaches them and blows them into a dusty corner.
If, as writers, we learn from other writers then Sebald is my preferred teacher. I want to incorporate what I learn from reading and re-reading his few works into my own writing. Not the actual writing, and not even the style of writing, which is distinctly W. G. Sebald. But his ability to move the reader from image to image, each invoking, initially, the most delicate of response. Never once does Sebald demand anything from the reader. He is subtle, far too subtle for that. It is this subtlety that I want to learn.